Today I don't bring my usual three meals to school, so I end up in the cute 6th floor cafe ordering instant noodle soup with egg during a break around 2pm. I find our principal's assistant, Van, there eating rice soup. Van is very, very cool. She's the kind of principal's assistant who runs the school in a very unassuming manner; she does everything, and everything is always done in a controlled, patient manner. She was educated at a California university- holds a masters degree- and is now spending a few post-graduate years at home with her family. She answered the ad for AIS in the summer - just like the rest of us.
Anyway, ever since the kids told me about funerals in Vietnam, I've wanted to cross-check the facts with Van. She, of course, speaks really good English and understands both cultures, so I go to her for the real stuff.
I tell her about my funeral discussion with 6A and she confirms some of it but adds more. (She seems totally fine discussing death over soup.)
"When a person dies, usually they are placed in a coffin and taken home for about four days. During that four days, family members drop in constantly. Usually, a monk is hired to recite prayers, and sometimes large amounts of family and friends are present for that.
"At around the fourth day, they put the coffin in one of those decorated trucks and have a procession to the cemetery. Sometimes, more prayers are said there. If the people are really religious, or can afford to hire the monk for more, more prayers are said.
"On the 45th day after the death, another ceremony is held. Again, if the family has money, they will hire a monk to say the prayers at this gathering, but it differs from family to family. After that, their death days are celebrated just like the kids told you, once per year, on the date of death."
I ask her if monks come to those, too. "Only if the family has money," she says. "It's not so common for that to happen."
I tell her I like how they do death here better than in the States, that I didn't know about the 45 day thing, but that it makes so much sense to me.
She cocks her head to one side.
"Really?" She thinks about this for a moment. "I like the way it's done in America better. Everyone gets together and it's simple. Not a lot of details."
"What kind of details?"
And then comes the rooster detail:
When the coffin is lowered into the ground at the cemetery, a rooster is brought out to circle the grave of the deceased. Everyone must follow the rooster around until it makes its rooster sound: roosters symbolize angels, so when they call, it means that the deceased has been released to death.
"My grandfather died a few years ago and we followed the rooster around for about ten laps. It wasn't making any sound and everyone was getting tired, so finally my uncle kicked it so we could get on with things."
"Your uncle kicked the angel?"
She laughs. "Yes. One year later, my uncle died of lung cancer. Some of my family thinks it's because he kicked the rooster at my grandfather's funeral."
She tells me about other superstitions, like the one about crying loudly at someone's death. It is believed that if you make loud mourning noises, the soul will not feel right about leaving, so it will hover and act as a ghost around your house. "In America, it seems that people don't really cry at funerals. Everyone is quiet. Here, even though they are supposed to be quiet for the sake of the soul's freedom, people cry and cry and wail and scream. It's because our families are so close, I think."
By the end of our soup, we come to pretty fair East Meets West Middle Ground concerning how funerals should go:
The Western service following death is good. The 45 Days after Death Ceremony is good. The yearly death celebrations and the altars are good. Crying is good. Ghosts are bad. The rooster is bad. We can get rid of the rooster.
Brian, I searched Google images for a rooster angel and got nothin'. Any way you can help?
(One day later: see how useful little brothers are?)